“It’s the comfiest punk bar I’ve ever stepped foot in,” says the singer-songwriter al Riggs. They’re describing Chapel Hill experimental music hub Nightlight, which opened on Franklin Street in 2003. The intimate venue boasts stocked bookshelves, gender-neutral bathrooms, and, as Riggs puts it, couches “like your grandparents would have.”

Riggs used to work the door and regularly play shows at Nightlight; for the past seven months, though, Nightlight has gone dark, with bills stacking up and an uncertain future ahead.  

At the end of September, Governor Roy Cooper moved North Carolina into Phase 3 of reopening; nightclubs and live performance venues are now permitted to host a maximum of 25 guests indoors. Hypothetically, this allowance could be helpful for larger venues with more room to spread out. Just a short walk from Nightlight, Cat’s Cradle has a 750-person capacity and commands higher ticket prices. But no venue has it easy, right now, and small venues with a DIY focus have been especially hard-hit.

Ethan Clauset, co-owner of Nightlight, doesn’t see the venue welcoming patrons back anytime soon. 

“Our capacity is about 135 people,” Clauset says. “I don’t see how you could have any kind of safe distancing without cutting down to 15 percent, maybe. Twenty people in there might, in theory, be safe, but in practice, it’s a small room with poor ventilation and low ceilings, and I don’t see any way to do that safely when there’s a highly contagious respiratory disease going around.”

In the early days of the shutdown, Nightlight set up a GoFundMe; it has since raised a little over $14,000, most of which has gone to paying out a little to staff every month. A Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration helped, Clauset says, but it only covered two months of payroll. 

The National Independent Venue Association’s #SaveOurStages campaign had staked hope in the chance of a second stimulus bill getting passed before the election, galvanizing awareness with the results of an internal report: Without federal relief, 90 percent of independent venues surveyed reported they would shutter before the end of the year.

For some, that alarming prospect is already a reality: Billboard maintains a growing index of venues across the country that have closed permanently during the pandemic, from beloved West Asheville institution The Mothlight to country-crooner hangout Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville. 

“We have been sounding the alarm since April that if our members don’t get emergency assistance, they will go under forever—and it’s happening,” NIVA director of communications Audrey Fix Schaefer said in a statement. “This is real. We need help.”

Early in October, President Trump quashed hopes of a bailout with a series of rapid-fire tweets that postponed any Congressional stimulus proceedings until after the election; though talks have since resumed.

Raleigh’s Timothy Lemuel hadn’t been holding out hope for a bailout. 

Lemuel is the owner of three small eclectic downtown spaces: queer nightclub Ruby Deluxe, live music venue The Wicked Witch, and dive bar The Night Rider. Like Nightlight, Lemuel’s venues—which have capacities of 132, 49, and 200, respectively—first closed their doors in mid-March and haven’t generated revenue since. When a statewide order mandated that bars and entertainment venues close, Lemuel immediately laid off his employees so that they could apply for unemployment benefits. 

And, just like that, Ruby Deluxe became a one-person operation. 

One of his landlords is offering reduced rent, he says, but another has demanded that he pay back-rent in full. Plus, according to Lemuel, his venues have been unable to access government grants due to restrictions on eligibility, including a stipulation that recipients be able to pay full rent.

A popular queer space for five years, Ruby Deluxe is known for its drag shows and dance parties. Most recently, it operated on a $5-per-year membership model. Now, the venue is in danger of shuttering permanently. The bar upstairs, from which Lemuel had been subleasing, is getting sold—which has put Lemuel in the position of trying to negotiate a 10-year lease.

Currently, the bar owner is trying to raise the $25,000 he needs to secure the lease and save the bar. On September 28, he took to Facebook to ask for help—though he stresses that folks looking to donate should prioritize organizations helping Black trans people. 

“Local and federal government are definitely not gonna help me,” Lemuel wrote, “and I need to get that out of my head.”

On Saturday, Lemuel made an optimistic bet and reopened with outdoor seating for 45 people. That kind of crowd is a drop in the bucket of what Ruby needs to play catch-up, but Lemuel says he has plans for food trucks and drag brunches in the future. 

Drag queen Kyle Howard, whose stage name is Veruca Salt, estimates that he has performed at Ruby Deluxe between 40 and 50 times. He says he’s been well-paid by the venue and feels respected as an artist—and that he used to enjoy dropping in even when he wasn’t performing. It’s a welcoming oasis; a sign posted by the door says as much.

“Consent is mandatory,” it reads. “Please respect people’s pronouns. A serious dance party may erupt at any moment, so please have yr best dance moves ready at all times.”

If Ruby Deluxe goes under, it will be a loss for the community, Howard says. 

“I know for me, it would basically be getting rid of a safe space.” 

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.